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Human life history schedules vary, partly, because of adaptive, plastic responses to early-life conditions. Little is known about how prenatal conditions relate to puberty timing. We hypothesized that fetal exposure to adversity may induce an adaptive response in offspring maturational tempo. In a longitudinal study of 253 mother-child dyads followed for 15 years, we investigated if fetal exposure to maternal psychological distress related to children’s adrenarche and gonadarche schedules, assessed by maternal and child report and by dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S), testosterone, and estradiol levels. We found fetal exposure to elevated maternal prenatal psychological distress predicted earlier adrenarche and higher DHEA-S levels in girls, especially first-born girls, and that associations remained after covarying indices of postnatal adversity. No associations were observed for boys or for gonadarche in girls. Adrenarche orchestrates the social-behavioral transition from juvenility to adulthood; therefore, significant findings for adrenarche, but not gonadarche, suggest that prenatal maternal distress instigates an adaptive strategy in which daughters have earlier social-behavioral maturation. The stronger effect in first-borns suggests that, in adverse conditions, it is in the mother’s adaptive interest for her daughter to hasten social maturation, but not necessarily sexual maturation, because it would prolong the duration of the daughter allomothering younger siblings. We postulate a novel evolutionary framework that human mothers may calibrate the timing of first-born daughters’ maturation in a way that optimizes their own reproductive success.


This article was originally published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, volume 160, in 2024.

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Table S1. Supplementary material


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